“The Hunger of Crows”
Written by Richard Schiabon Books Crooked Lane. 2021; 304 pages $27.99
Homer, Alaska, doesn’t spring to mind as the obvious setting for a political thriller, especially where the outcome could determine the US presidential race. Which is why Homer makes perfect sense. When someone has something to hide and someone is hiding, the legendary end of the road is an attractive destination.
This is how Carla Merino finds herself there in Richard Schiapone’s suspenseful and hilarious novel, The Hunger of Crows. Schiapone, who clearly lives and loves Homer, makes his hometown and the surrounding Kachemak Bay area a backdrop for Karla’s vacation after she finds in her possession an indebted photo of an independent presidential candidate soaring in the polls.
The story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, where Carla works as a waitress at a bar that caters to cops. A divorced 40-year-old, she fills in the blanks in her life by returning home with lost men. When she meets Cosmo D’Angelo at the bar, she assumes he’s an enforcement officer of some sort, and follows him to his place. Before she left, she would do what you do with all the men you slept with, and tell you something as a souvenir. In this case, a photograph of the drawer of D’Angelo’s bed nearly 20 years younger than him, alongside a white American and two seemingly Latin American men, one a military officer, the other possibly a businessman.
The second white man in the photo is Gordon McKinnt, owner of Sidewinder Security, a secret international company that handles secret foreign relations missions and moves into US border security. McCaint is running for president on an original platform and has momentum. Carla sends a screenshot of the photo to a friend of a New York Times reporter, telling her it shows you were with a Colombian colonel who stole millions in US aid money. McCent, who is suspected of engaging in a lot of fraudulent activities, told Congress that he had never met the colonel. Publishing the photo would prove him guilty of lying under oath, scuttling his presidential hopes and business empire, and possibly putting him behind bars. D’Angelo, with whom Carla returns home, is McKint’s assistant. It solves the president’s problems. And he’ll want to get that picture back.
With a few belongings and the engraving, an image the New York Times would like to publish, Carla gets into her truck and heads north. Which leads her to Homer, where most of the tale takes place.
Carla finds sanctuary in the alcohol-soaked fishing town and works as a waitress at Orca Grill, a popular watering hole for locals and tourists. She falls in a relationship with George Volker, her owner, grows up close to fellow waitress Shire Kaminsky, a single mother of twins, and is noticed by Scott Crockett, a painfully honest local general contractor in the midst of an ugly and thus newly available divorce. And she searches forever over her shoulder in search of D’Angelo, who, being a political thriller, has of course found out her whereabouts, and is on his way. As with some of the other folks at McKint.
I understood you? I don’t want to reveal more details here, because Chiappone throws so many unexpected twists into this plot that any attempt to summarize it will not only fail to do the book justice, but deprive readers of the sheer happiness that comes from reading it.
I said at the beginning that “The Hunger of Crows” is a political thriller, but the focus is not on politics, while the thrills are dispensed wisely as needed to move things along without going beyond the plot. The characters drive the story. Chiappone delves into their backgrounds, developing them into complex individuals. Most of them are in the early stages of middle age, grappling with the choices that led them to who they are. Carla follows in her mother’s footsteps and runs away from her. Scott, who has emerged as a primary supporting character, was born in Homer and, like many Alaskans, has a college degree but prefers to work with his hands. D’Angelo, who would have been considered a soulless killer, is instead a middle-aged man who has just lost his adult daughter to cancer. He, too, struggles with his life choices. In Chiappone’s hands, past experiences drive the current motivations of all those in his leadership roles. They are as logical as people. As do their decisions.
Homer and Kachemak Bay are also meaningful characters in that Chiappone employs them as living powers that provide more than just settings. He knows these places well, and evokes the contrast of natural beauty with exquisitely human intervention in passages like these, when Carla pauses to contemplate her surroundings:
Combined with the natural ocean scent of salt water and fish, and the harbor breeze smelling of diesel and tailings… two mature bald eagles perched atop a tall construction hoist, mopping the beach for an easy meal.
Anyone who has visited the Homer Spit will instantly find themselves returning to it with that description. And for those who’ve driven…well…anywhere in Alaska, Chiappone’s brooding summary of one of the state’s most popular outdoor siding options will be true:
“They pass by another house, mummified in tyvek.”
“Mummified.” One of the constants of Schiabone’s writing, whether literary non-literary, short stories or political thrillers, is his sense of humor. There are so many hilarious lines so effortlessly inserted into this novel that inattentive readers risk losing many of them, though that it is impossible to overlook a brief paragraph on the fate of the fly hunters, which I will not give up, both will be veteran hunters and those who have not They cast a cat rod laughing out loud.
“The Hunger of Crows” is literary enough that those who eschew the literary genre in general will want to read it, but accessible enough that readers of thrillers will also enjoy it immensely. This is not an easy gap to fill. This one belongs on everyone’s late summer reading list.